The first seven weeks…

Bird tracks in the snow outside our house (image: Graham Brown)
Bird tracks in the snow outside our house (image: Graham Brown)

So, how is 2018 for you so far? Some small triumphs? Some big positives? And, for some, of course, there will have been loss and sadness. Sorry.

The world rolls round, our nervousness about the Korean peninsular slightly eased by the Winter Olympics; Brexit continuing to breed uncertainty and division, in the UK, Ireland and elsewhere; we’ve had more dangerous nonsense from the United States President; more cases of the abuse of children and women coming to light; disturbing news about Oxfam; and another horrific mass shooting in the States.

For Mrs Brown (Kathie Touin) and I the year had a very quiet start. We had stayed at home over the Christmas period while our Border collie Roscoe recovered from an operation (he is doing very well, thank you for asking). Our first notable outing was our village Hogmanay event in Quoyloo Old School which must be, I think where it happened…

On 3 January Kathie and I both crashed with the flu. And I mean crashed. Within a few hours of feeling unwell we were both in bed, hardly able to move, not wanting to eat. I have had “flu-like colds” before but not the flu – this was wicked.

For several days we alternated between bed and short, exhausting periods in front of the TV. We had to ask a friend in our village to go shopping for essential supplies for us, making sure she left them in the porch and did not come into the plague house.

In the past I have thought an illness would be a great opportunity to catch-up with my reading but, when it came to it, I did not have the energy. Thankfully the programmes I had saved on the BBC iPlayer Radio app provided some entertainment and brain stimulation.

We got to day ten of the illness before I felt well enough to take Roscoe for a walk.

After nearly a fortnight I felt well enough to go into the RSPB Scotland office in Stromness, where I had been asked to provide cover for a colleague.

Roscoe in the snow (image: Graham Brown)
Roscoe in the snow (image: Graham Brown)

Since the end of December we have experienced an unusual amount of snow in Orkney – never enough to cause drifting but enough to make some of my journeys to work a little tricky. And, this is the exciting part, enough for Roscoe to roll around in.

We had really heavy snow the first winter we lived in Orkney (December 2010) but that was before Roscoe came to live with us. Then it became so bad that only very large tractors were able to drive down the track past our house and they left a channel so deep that when I walked in it the surrounding snow came up to my waist.

Older Orcadians tell us that in their youth it was much more common to get snow here and archive black-and-white photographs of Orkney seem to bear this out.

Snow, snow! Throw the ball! (image: Graham Brown)
Snow, snow! Throw the ball! (image: Graham Brown)

My latest stint working at the RSPB was, essentially, the second half of January. One aspect I enjoy about going to work is the chance to listen to CDs in the car (not that I don’t enjoy Kathie’s conversation when she is in the car). The Audi A1 which I inherited from my father has a very good sound system.

So it was that I found myself, for the first time in some years, listening to my double Les Misérables CD (Original London cast) all the way through.

To go back some years…

I was not particularly interested in musicals though both of my parents enjoyed them. I remember as a child my father would burst into extracts from Oklahoma as he walked around the house – “There’s a bright, golden haze on the meadow…”

Then in the 1980s I have a memory of my mother talking enthusiastically about a moving song (which turned out to be Send Him Home) from a new musical (which turned out to be Les Mis) which she had heard on the radio.

In 1986 I moved to London and so began a series of visits from my parents. Inevitably, they wanted to go to the West End theatres and, in particular, musicals. The first one they chose was Les Misérables . It was not the first musical I ever saw but the first that really hooked me – since then I have seen the show about half-a-dozen times. It ranks as my favourite musical, along with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel. I challenge you to sit through a decent stage production of either without regular need of a hankie to wipe your eyes.

One of the Les Misérables productions I have seen was by Orkney’s Kirkwall Amateur Operatic Society (KAOS) in 2015 – the first time an amateur group in the UK had performed the show. I admit I was slightly dubious about going to see this production but the local cast did it proud. Well done all.

Listening to my CD while driving between our home in Quoyloo and the office in Stromness (it took a few trips before I finished, it’s only a nine-mile journey) I was reminded again what a stupendous work Les Misérables is – a tale of love, loss and redemption, with some great soaring tunes, and a timely reminder of what it is to be at the bottom of the heap in society.

Theatrical history tells that Les Mis got very poor reviews when it began and it is remarkable how, in an age before social media, the audience’s love for the show and word-of-mouth overcame this early setback.

The original French version, based on Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel, was written by Claude-Michel Schönberg (music) and Alain Boublil (most lyrics). The majority of the English words were written by Herbert Kretzmer, a South African who had a long career in Britain as a journalist and a lyricist. When I first worked at the BBC he was one of the national newspaper TV reviewers who regularly called into the press office.

Les Misérables logo
Les Misérables logo

If you get a chance to see Les Mis on stage, or listen to the CD, please do. But remember your hankie. Incidentally, I have yet to watch the film (movie) version as I am nervous as to what they have done with it.

This first six weeks of 2018 have seen completion of two projects at our house: the guest room en suite, delayed for months by a mystery leak which turned out to be water seeping through the actual porcelain of the toilet, and a new stone wall at the front of the house, designed to cover the drab concrete blocks and to prevent anyone falling off our frontage.

This past weekend Kathie and I did some tidying outside, filling the new “lower flower border” – oh yes, we have an upper border as well – with compost, much of it from our own bin. And Kathie constructed a stone bench from pieces of stone we have about the place – the sun even shone allowing us to try it out.

Kathie Touin tries out her new stone bench (image: Graham Brown)
Kathie Touin tries out her new stone bench (image: Graham Brown)

Back in early February Quoyloo Old School – of which Kathie and I are “Managers”, ie committee members – was hosting a dangerous goods course for lorry drivers or, if you are American, truck drivers. Thankfully this did not involve dangerous goods in the school, but it did involve the Managers providing the lunchtime catering.

Two of the Managers, John and I, donned aprons in order to serve the soup. Our Chair, Edith, thought this rather funny and she asked if, in a previous life, we had ever thought we would find ourselves in a remote old school, dressed in pinnies, serving soup to lorry drivers. Answer, no.

Anyway, it was a manly apron from the Kent & East Sussex Railway, not a pinny.

Graham Brown

P.S. Kathie and I went to see The Darkest Hour last night. A great performance by Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill. And, I must admit, hearing again some of Churchill’s speeches has made me feel my English language skills are a little inadequate.

To find out more

BBC Radio – http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio

Wikipedia on Les Misérables – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Les_Mis%C3%A9rables_(musical)

The Orcadian on Orkney production of Les Miserables – https://www.orcadian.co.uk/first-for-orkney-production-of-les-miserables/

Quoyloo Old School on Facebook – https://en-gb.facebook.com/Old-School-Quoyloo-462982410411472/

Kent & East Sussex Railway – https://www.kesr.org.uk/

And the trailer for The Darkest Hour…

One year later: more thoughts about my father

One year ago today, which happened to be Easter Day, my father Clive Brown died aged 82 in the early hours of the morning. I have written about this in three previous blogs – “48 Hours: my father and I“, “48 Hours: postscript” and “That Was The Year That Was“. But, if you will indulge me, I have a few more thoughts to offer on this poignant anniversary.

It is a truism to say that time passes more quickly as one gets older but the past year seems to have raced along. Perhaps it is to do with being “over the hill”, a phrase meaning past one’s best which is not heard so much these days (maybe because I am older people whisper the words out of my earshot). Anyway, if I am “over the hill” and careering out of control down the other side that might explain time rushing by.

In a previous blog – “It wouldn’t be a show without Punch” – I recorded some of my late mother’s expressions but I would also like to recall a few of my father’s favourite sayings.

mumanddad 001
One of my favourite photographs of my parents, Mary & Clive Brown

Two of his regulars were “muck or nettles” and “all hair and teeth”. The first means “all or nothing”, though I have no idea why, and the second indicates a particularly lively situation, for example, a frantic and barely-under-control football match.

He also liked to refer to a situation being “a right schmozzle”, meaning chaotic. I understand schmozzle is of Hebrew or Yiddish origin and I once surprised an Israeli work colleague when, without thinking, I used the word. I don’t know where my father got it from, perhaps it was common parlance when he was young or perhaps he picked it up during his National Service in the Army.

When I was a small child my father sang in a male voice choir and he continued to enjoy choral music throughout his life. But his favourite genre was West End, Broadway and film musicals. He loved going to see musicals and I chose the Prologue, or Carousel Waltz, from Carousel, performed by the John Wilson Orchestra, as the music at the end of his funeral service. He also loved watching this orchestra when they appeared on TV from the BBC Proms.

I used to reflect how a few years’ difference in date of birth could have made a big difference to my slightly old-fashioned, though fairly enlightened, father. He was born in August 1933. Less than 18 months later, in January 1935, along came Elvis Presley and just five years or so after that John Lennon was born. They helped pioneer a form of music which largely passed my father by.

But, of course, it is not just when we are born which governs what we like or dislike. The society and family around us, our own peculiar tastes, are probably more important. Being born a few years later would not have made my father a rocker.

He was a big consumer of TV programmes, particularly live football (especially Arsenal) and political programmes.

In terms of reading, it was mostly biographies and autobiographies (of historical, political, newspaper and sporting characters) and railway books – but definitely not fiction. Fiction was something of a blindspot for my father, he could not see the point of reading made-up stories when there were so many real stories to read.

I would like to close with some passages from one of the letters I received after my father died last year. You may know that his last job before retirement was Editor of the Spalding Guardian and of the Lincolnshire Free Press, two local newspapers in Spalding, South Holland (south Lincolnshire) which were effectively operated as a twice-weekly.

The letter I have in mind came from someone who was a journalist in the same company, but not at the same newspaper. She made some fascinating observations in her thoughtful and heartfelt letter.

Not everything she wrote struck me as true but we all have different experiences of people – for example, she felt he was reluctant to allow others “access to his treasure of experience and talent.” I would have thought differently, but I did not work for or with him.

But among her observations which ring true about his approach to journalism and work…

“Clive’s often inscrutable responses were a breath of fresh air when set against sometimes fawning contributions from individuals desperate to succeed in the cut-throat world of print publishing.”

“He did not suffer fools and hilariously described one [company] director, for whom he had no time whatsoever, as ‘Being at the back of the queue when couth was handed out’.”

“He consummately detested all things ‘corporate’…”

“He largely loathed”… “experimental promotional ideas”.

“His talent as a shrewd and eloquent newsman always shone brightly.”

“Unquestionably his own man, he commanded the Spalding Guardian by the shrewd application of qualities that made newspapers successful at the time: honesty, integrity and accuracy delivered with a genuine attempt at social responsibility and true reader value.”

Graham Brown